Wednesday, May 27, 2009

5/27 - Ballooning over southeast China

I awoke on my 49th birthday at 4:30am so that I could shower and then immediately spray myself with mosquito repellent. The balloon people, true to their word, knocked on our door and then waited patiently in our hotel for us to join them. In the early dawn, we drove toward the launch site and looked at the foggy, cloudy sky hoping that there might be some sign of its clearing. It did not look hopeful (Yahoo weather forecast predicted more thunderstorms today and tomorrow for Guilin). Nonetheless, the morning cloudiness would probably be safer than an afternoon thunderstorm, so the balloons started filling (we'll have lots of photos, albeit, low contrast photos). The roar of the burners and fans in a formerly peaceful quiet would bother me if I'd been a resident of the adjacent buildings, but they looked completely vacant. The three of us were joined by a pair from Switzerland (Daniel and his mom Macarena, who also had just celebrated a birthday) and we hopped in the basket with our pilot.

Adding six people to a basket which already included two large propane tanks and hoses was an adventure itself. The heat from the burner over our heads and the deafening noise was rather severe, and I worried that my weight together with the two backpacks we'd tossed in would exceed the allowable limit. We weren't lifting off, in spite of the constant heat being applied by the burner and roasting my hairless head. Finally, we moved a bit, and the two ground crew members directed us slightly. We suddenly started ascending toward the vacant apartments which, unfortunately, were four stories tall and very near. But we successfully cleared the buildings and were moving vertically much faster than we were drifting horizontally. The sudden silence (and refreshing cool breeze) as we were swiftly climbing was hypnotic. Even though each of us faced outward, we had an ever expanding view of diminishing rice fields and karst peaks, Yangshuo and other towns in the distance, and the snaking river. We climbed so quickly that in little time we were above the tops of the mountains, and then too soon into and above the lowest layer of clouds. I could no longer see the ground, yet felt the wind moving us along, and all I could think of was the old movie King Kong. I was certain that if we descended blindly then suddenly we'd see that we'd drifted into a series of pinnacles and we'd be doomed to become part of the local folklore. Nobody else seemed to share my concern, so I figured, "What the hay" [loosely translated it means "Ohhhh shiiiiit"] and just kept looking for any landmarks on the ground.

We slowly returned below the clouds and could make out discrete areas of farming, buildings, roads and trails, burial sites (circular raised areas in grouped areas often at the base of the peaks), rivers and bridges, and towns. On at least two occasions, the first being over a fast flowing river, our pilot took us down and hovered within twenty feet of the surface, prompting me to put away the camera and prepare for impact. Only then he would take us back up. We rose alongside a karst and then sailed over its peak, noting how dense and varied the vegetation along its entire rock face seemed to be. He flew us very close to Moon Hill, an arched semi-circular opening atop one of the karst peaks. It was a gray, low contrast day, in which visibility was slowly improving as the sun (presumably) was making its way higher in the sky.

Alex soared like an eagle over much of Southeast Asia that morning. We set down after an hour or so of flight, in the middle of a little traveled roadway where a truck and some attendants were waiting (okay, the pilot had a GPS and two-way radio and had been in frequent contact with the ground). Nonetheless, I still think it would have been more fun if we'd tipped sideways in a rice field and had to slog through the mud to find a way back, which is kind of what I’d expected when we first set out. We'd sprayed enough Off on ourselves to have been able to trek through the jungle [first thing our driver did when we got into the van was to open several of the windows for ventilation] and we had outfitted our backpacks for nearly every eventuality [hence my relief when we were indeed able to lift off].

Actually, our pilot successfully landed our basket very gently on the roadway. It had helped that we'd seen another balloon successfully perform the same maneuver a few minutes before us, and they seemed to have survived unscathed [speaking of scathes, we joked that a woman the previous day had approached us with one....well, joke is not exactly the right word, she indeed had her arm held high with an exceedingly sharp one in her fist as we scooted quickly past her]. A couple of attendants jumped on the basket to keep it from returning to flight, and we each took turns crawling out and thanking our pilot for not burning us alive as he switched hoses from one tank to the next, and for avoiding the smokestack [descending over and almost into a very tall industrial smokestack and seeing inside it from above is something they should add to the tour description and which I'd highly recommend each of you try at least once in your life], and for avoiding the power lines and vacant apartment building and karst peaks from within the clouds, and for not saying in his relatively limited English "We are out of fuel and are going down" or "One of you will have to leap" or "Dear Buddha, Please Forgive Me!" Instead, we each just said "She she."

So I survived my 49th birthday thus far. After a quick breakfast of fruit and banana pancakes, we've returned to the Rosewood Inn so that Karen and Alex can catch a few more winks. I'm drinking tea and writing, and feel pretty good about being alive.

Brief aside: Thanks for all your Birthday Wishes, Amanda, Tom, Rayme, and Helen! Like I said, it was so nice to have survived another, especially given the lack of OSHA regulations in the Asian ballooning world. I talked with another traveler from Jerusalem who landed within a meter of a power line yesterday afternoon and described all the excitement on the part of the ground crew as they attempted to keep the balloon from coming in contact with live wires.

By Wednesday afternoon, the girls had finished their morning naps and we embarked on a rural exploration on three hotel bicycles. These were actually very nice mountain bikes, with front shock absorbers and comfy seats. My only complaint was that my ringer lacked a handle, so while Karen and Alex joined in the cacophony of bells and horns on the streets of Yangshuo, I had to invent various sounds as I passed some of the slower tourists, oxcarts, or pedestrians. Actually, it allowed me great freedom to make guttural sounds, which I'd been doing as entertainment primarily to aggravate Karen, who insisted that I was being rude to the locals and might be saying something offensive. Although I think she was being overly sensitive, there may have been some truth to her admonition. Alex told me that instead of telling our favorite noodle maker that the food was great, I'd called the food stupid, or something along those lines.

This time we found no difficulty in finding the right road, since we'd traveled it with our ballooning group. But it still amazes me how much more sensual a journey can be when on bicycle and lacking a rear view mirror. My visual senses, having been overwhelmed, relied on auditory clues as to what might be approaching from our back sides. I felt oddly relieved when, at one point where I'd stopped to photograph a Chinese burial site, a petrol truck (or a sewage truck, or a milk truck, they oddly all look alike) actually slowed and moved over a bit when it saw that it would be passing Karen and Alex. [Do I still need to mention that it blared its horn? Everyone in China blares his horn.] We reached the edge of the village after successfully passing through a couple of roundabouts and were met by relative silence. It was actually a nice roadway, relatively flat (considering the surrounding terrain and karst peaks), and surprisingly empty of noxious odors, though there were several small ponds which defy description. I could write pages about the types of people we've encountered, but I'll leave it up to students of Chinese culture, because I'd probably get it all wrong anyhow. Let it suffice to say that Karen and Alex still yell at me because I like to make eye contact or acknowledge some of the people I encounter, the ones who appear to me to also want to open a door. [Problem is, eye contact tends to encourage street vendor activity.] We saw lots of rice paddies, various forms of rural housing, and reached our destination of a plaza at the Yulong River bridge, where dozens of bamboo boat operators waited to snag interested tourists. We spent a little time exploring the river and some of its rapids, and watched as many bamboo craft (six or seven large diameter, very long bamboo poles lashed together and featuring a pair of bamboo seats covered by an umbrella, and piloted by a barefoot, tan driver). The going rate for bamboo boat rides was about CNY100 ($15), and although it looked like lots of fun, we thought our health would benefit from as little contact with the river as possible. Having recovered from the ride out (which always seems farther than the return journey), we decided to head back toward town. We took our time on the return, made more stops, watched three adventurers climbing hundreds of feet up on the vertical face of a karst, and tried to determine what safety measures might have been in place to protect these climbers. At least we saw helmets, and we think we even saw safety ropes.

This area is wonderful in that it is a tourist destination and loaded with many nationalities, though many are Chinese from around the country. So many people made an effort to say hello in English as they passed or were passed on the trip back to town. All in all, in spite of gently burning legs, it was a very relaxing afternoon. I just know that riding in the same manner which is taken for granted here in China would result in certain, instantaneous, painful death if performed in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

We returned the bikes and grabbed some tall bottles of cheap, but good, Chinese beer (Happy Hour wouldn't begin for two more hours). More market shopping, relatively unsuccessful compared with the previous day, made us a bit weary. We again went to our favorite Bei Fang Qing Hua Jaio Zi noodle place to again have Julienne potatoes, noodles with tomato and beef, and stir fry pork. The titles do not do justice to the five stars each of these dishes should be awarded. Capped off by three more tall Chinese beers, and another round of "name the relationship each of the shop owners and employees in the market has to one another" made for a great dinner. My birthday dinner was very memorable, and we again were entertained by members of the Bei Fang family, from five-month old "Stella" to her grandma (Karen's, and now my, age) and all the relatives in between. I felt sorry for the paternal chef, whom I assume was grandpa (though he too was only about my age), because it looked as though he'd lost at whatever card game he was playing with the shopkeeper from across the alley. The young man took him for every kuai he probably had, and I had been rooting for the old noodle maker. We hope to have ingratiated ourselves enough so that for our last dinner in Yangshuo we'll be able to watch our dinner being made. More on this later.

We finished the evening drinking Mojitos and playing poker at our little bar owned by the Australians. Unfortunately, a rather vulgar pair of their compatriots sat behind us within earshot and insisted on making rude comments about every Chinese waitress within sight as if none of them comprehended any English. Funny how exotic settings can sometimes bring out the drunken sailor in English speaking jerks. We called it an early night without any billiards, since Alex planned on waking us all up in a few hours to catch the EUFA soccer final from Rome (which we watched at 2:45 am - got to see FC Barcelona defeat Manchester United--hooray).

Yang can cook!

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